In a sense, major league baseball returned to Washington yesterday. In a sense, it's never been further away.

Those "Baseball in '87" stickers turned out to be 1/162nd correct. There will be baseball in RFK Stadium in 1987. But only one game -- an exhibition on April 5 between the World Series champion New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies.

After a 15-year big-league vacuum since a couple of exhibitions in 1972, RFK figures to see starting lineups that contain such stars as Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin McReynolds, Mike Schmidt, Von Hayes and Juan Samuel.

"Washington has been without baseball far too long," said this game's creator and promoter, Russ Potts. "We're hoping fans will fill RFK so we can show the commissioner and all the owners that Washington is a great baseball city and it's time the Nation's Capital had big league baseball again . . . .

"This game is a win-win-win situation. Two top teams. About 10 to 12 percent of the gross goes to charity -- the Police Boys and Girls Clubs. And it could help us get a team someday."

That's the sales pitch. See the world champs in your own town. And make a civic statement.

So what if the regulars come out after two or three at-bats? So what if the pitchers, just two days before the real opening day, will be second-liners trying to stay sharp. So what if ticket prices (from $5 to $12.50 with an $8.75 average) are higher than any major league team has charged for a regular season game?

Who cares if the infield is all grass except for sliding pits? Who cares if home plate has practically been pushed back to the screen? As for the world's shortest left field, the foul line will be 265 feet away with a goofy 23-foot-high plywood fence -- the Luke Appling Wall -- stretching 55 yards toward center field.

Will this sort of baseball in RFK make Washington look enthusiastic and profitable or desperate and rinky-dink?

Frank Cashen, Mets vice president, and Bill Giles, Phillies president, were in town to drum up tickets. But they also were here to tell some home truths and blow up a few pipe dreams about D.C. getting a team anytime soon. Or maybe anytime at all.

"I figured I'd probably end up in Washington . . . but for a Congressional inquiry," said Cashen, a half-dozen of whose players have had copiously documented run-ins with police. "That's what happens when you spend the winter with 80 percent of your starting staff under indictment. At least now they're on probation.

"I'm glad to hear the proceeds of this game will go to the police . . . and to girls, too, because not all our problems were with the police. Some were with the girls."

When Giles spoke, he said his Phillies had three reasons for playing in Washington. To help his old buddy Potts. To stir up more Phillies interest among fans in the Washington area. And to "make more money than you can for an exhibition in Clearwater, Fla."

Giles' surprise for the day was that his marketing studies show that 100,000 Washington fans a year trek to Philadelphia for games. "We've wanted to put a radio outlet for our games in D.C., but Baltimore wasn't too happy about it. They couldn't stop it, but we wanted to be nice brothers, so we didn't do it out of deference."

The man who rattled the silverware on this festive occasion was Cashen. Asked if a sellout crowd for the exhibition game could help Washington get an expansion team, he said, "Until we get our own house straightened out, it would be ludicrous, almost immoral, to consider expansion.

"We have struggling franchises to stabilize. We have a network contract to negotiate, probably for less money. We have a labor contract that runs out after '89. Player salaries are still escalating . . .

"The most unfair thing we could do today would be to say expansion is around the corner. There's definitely less talk about it than three years ago . . . When {Commissioner Peter} Ueberroth made the owners open the books in '85, we found out what great gobs of money we were losing. Until then, each owner thought he was the only idiot. Well, we stopped being idiots."

To further dampen the news conference party spirit, Giles added, "I believe the National League would do well in Washington. But I don't believe in intruding on another team's territory. That's not good sense for the industry. Now, I think of Washington as part of Baltimore's territory."

"Because of the goodly numbers of people from Washington who go to the Orioles games," said Cashen, "Baltimore is now one of the most successful franchises in the game. Ed Williams has done a super marketing job. He made going to Orioles games the socially acceptable thing to do."

Both Cashen and Giles agreed that, although the American League might like to go to 16 teams fairly soon, the National League is quite content at 12. That doesn't help Washington since the Orioles can, and would, block any AL expansion to Washington.

"Expansion will come eventually," said Giles, "but how do you define 'eventually'? You can't use attendance at this exhibition game as a barometer of baseball-for-Washington. There will be a lot more important factors, if and when expansion happens. But if we have a full house, it will help."

There, that's about perfect. Could a situation be more contradictory? Could our signals be more mixed and jammed? Fill ol' RFK but don't expect anything for it. Pay $8.75, but don't say anything if Schmidt doesn't like your grass infield and won't play. Celebrate Washington's opening day on April 5, then go to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore the next afternoon because, after all, that's really your team.

The first time Giles and Cashen were scheduled to speak in Washington about this game, it snowed a foot. For the rescheduled appearance, another foot. Can it snow on April 5?

For those of infinite patience who still care about this city's quest for a team, for those who think the Orioles are infinitely better than nothing but not a solution, this was a cheerful, yet depressing day.

Some will say this game's just an exhibition, take it or leave it, like the Ice Capades coming to town -- that it's not tied in any way to expansion. But that's just not true. If Washington draws 15,000, not 50,000, we'll never hear the end of it, especially from Denver, which has two exhibitions.

When Washington's baseball-starved fans, with a public-relations gun pointed at their heads, are asked to pay record prices to see a meaningless game played on a misshapen joke of a diamond, a bromide seems appropriate: If there's a sucker born every minute, could this be our minute?